While spending Christmas day with loved ones, I have been reflecting on my fall semester in the Transdisciplinary Design program at Parsons. I can hardly believe how quickly it passed. The design methodologies, technical skills, and new modes of thinking I learned are clearer from the retrospective “balcony” than they were on the mid-semester “dance floor.” I want to share a project I made for my portfolio. This post has a lot of photos because I geeked about how beautiful the process is.
In one of my classes, I was given the assignment of producing a physical portfolio, business card, or brochure that reflects my professional practice. I knew that I couldn’t simply make a digitally printed book on industrial paper manufactured from wood pulp and claim it’s an object that represents my No Trash principles. So, I consulted my enormously talented friend Pam DeLuco, who I’ve written about here on this blog in the past. I told her I was thinking about making the paper by hand and she advised me on different materials that I could scavenge from the trash and natural fibers I could forage to make the pulp. She then invited me out to California to make it in her beautiful studio, Shotwell Paper Mill, the only handmade paper mill in San Francisco. Because the cost of the flight was affordable and I knew I would also get to see my sister who lives in the Bay Area (we grew up out there) I decided to make the trip. Having access to Pam’s know-how, resources, and facilities was an incredible gift. We worked for five days around the clock to create a little book (a chapbook folded from a single sheet of paper) that both describes and embodies the ideas I have been tumbling around over the course of my semester.
After meeting Pam at SFO, we headed straight to an evening workshop at Dandelion Chocolate where we indulged in holiday samples and collected jute burlap cacao bean sacks. The burlap sacks are used to transport dry food goods around the world but they are only used once. Pam has been collecting these from vendors around San Francisco who would otherwise throw them away. Processed, the jute fibers make a crisp, smooth, beige paper, which I felt would meet the aesthetic and utilitarian requirements of my project. The following morning we hit up Four Barrel Coffee for a few more coffee bean sacks before heading to the Mission district studio.
To start, I cut the bags into one-inch squares with a pizza cutter-style blade and scissors. By the time I was finished with this first step, my right hand was numb. Pam is 5 feet tall and not much more than 90 pounds, but she must have strong hands from this work. During this process, I created trash—a dulled pizza-cutter blade.
As I dismembered the bags, I collected stowaway cacao beans, which fueled our work over the next several days.
Next, we submerged the cut pieces in a 10-gallon pot of water and cooked the fibers over a propane stove for several hours, occasionally stirring them with a long stick. It was a very special brew. The smell of the fermented cacao beans clings to the jute sacks and it filled the studio as the water bubbled and boiled.
Once the fibers cooked down, I rinsed them until the water ran clear. Pam’s business partner Drew Cameron taught me how to operate the Hollander Beater and we added the fibers to the trough. Drew explained that the beater does not cut the fibers but rather it compacts them, which in a sense makes the fibers “grabbier,” so that they can form the hydrogen bond necessary to make a sheet of paper.
To check the beaten pulp for inconsistencies, we drew a sample from the beater and held it up to the light. No clumps. Time to make the sheets.
I decided to make seed paper. I felt that this element made the piece conceptually stronger. I wanted to create a prompt for users to lovingly move the object I produced into the “disposal” phase of its life. By making the paper plantable, I hope that those who interact with it will one day bury the jute paper in soil and in turn feel rewarded for their stewardship by the food reaped from the sown seeds. I rode Pam’s bike to the Scarlet Sage Herb Co. to pick up their very last packet of heirloom lettuce, which I chose because this seed is hard enough that it doesn’t germinate in the sheet before the paper can dry.
“Pulling” the paper was one of my favorite parts of the process. We added the pulp to a bath of water, sprinkled in the seeds, and pulled a papermaking mould and deckle through the mixture. The fibers catch on the screen as the water drains through. The paper is then “couched” or pressed onto pieces of felt that are pressed between wood boards and dried.
While the paper was drying, I got to work setting type to letterpress print the text of my book. After making the paper by hand, it wouldn’t have seemed right to run it through a laser printer. I chose sans serif, no frills, News Gothic 12 point font. I did print a digital copy of my text onto a white sheet of paper to use as a reference while I worked. As I sat there lifting each letter out of the tray, I was struck by the strangeness of using a modern technology to assist the antiquated process.
This part took many hours. In order to justify the text on the pages of my tiny book, I was editing on the fly, searching for synonyms, unessential words, and rephrases in order to make each line fit. The letterpress printed version is essentially a translation of the Microsoft Word document I had been tweaking before arriving in SF. The contents of this book are ideas that I have been working with very closely for many months. But setting these thoughts in led type has deepened my relationship to them.
After the paper was dried and the type was set, it was time to print a test sheet.
So we took the press for a spin.
And discovered some (ironic) typos.
Finally, we got all the kinks out and ran the edition through the press. The seeds broke the type in some places but I think it was worth it to have them in there. I can’t wait to plant one of the books.
I hand illustrated and signed each edition copy, because I’m particularly interested in the tension between the preciousness of the object and its true disposability. When I posted an image of the finished piece on instagram, a friend commented, “But why would you want to plant such a beautiful little book?!” My answer is: Because it can be as beautiful in its death as it is in its life. I’m pleased with the end result and so grateful to Pam and Drew for their guidance and unfettered support throughout the project. It’s a glimpse at what I’ve been up to and what I’ve been thinking about.